Ring-ring. Ugh. 4am. And on a Friday morning. "Wake up, wake up! Yala, yala! Get up and head out to Sweihan," squealed Sheikha R excitedly over the phone. I could hear the rustle of clothes being put on as she spoke. I mumbled an "OK". But before I could say anything else, she cut in: "Great. See you there, and don't forget to wear our T-shirt."
Sheikha R, and her cousin, Sheikha S, were competing in one of the horse races at the Al Asayl Endurance Village in Sweihan, near Abu Dhabi. The races are reserved for ladies only; Emirati men are banned. "The Emiratis would chase the women riders with their cars if they were allowed in," Sheikha R explained when I asked her why male nationals were excluded but not foreign men.
After many twists and turns, and a moment of dread as my little Toyota seemed to sink into one of the sandy hills while hefty 4x4s zoomed by, flashing their headlights as if to say: "Get a real car loser!" I arrived. People were running back and forth with the horses that were being warmed up for the races watched by the sheikhas, their hair tightly tucked into bandannas under their helmets. Each of the riders wore a number, and their own distinct colours. Some came wearing glitter, others colourful riding boots: each hoping to stand out in some way. So did their supporters. Their clothes were even brighter, even flashier.
At last, all the preparations were complete. Sheikha R had one last chance to scan the opposition: "Oh oh, that beauty there belongs to a sheikh of Dubai, and that white horse to an Abu Dhabi one," she shouted to me as she hopped on her own ride, a brown beauty. "Yala, yala! What are you standing here for, get into a 4x4 and follow them," said Aysha, a mutual friend who also had come along to cheer on the riders. Right next to the tracks, a caravan of 4x4s filled with screaming women sped along the dunes and ditches, spraying sand everywhere. It was the bumpiest, loudest and craziest ride of my life.
"Go Sheikha R! Go Sheikha S!" screamed sisters and cousins as we slowed down near the riders, blaring Khaleeji music. Swoosh, a whole pile of sand slapped my face as the driver, one of the Sheikha's trainers, hit the accelerator and plunged into one of the dunes. Snap! Everyone in the vehicle turned to take a picture of my blindness. Alongside us, in other Jeeps and 4x4s, were the family, friends and brothers of other riders. "That's Sheikh H, and he is still single," blushed one of my companions.
"I just feel so free here in the desert," said one of the sheikhas as she wiped off some of the sand and dirt on her face. "You can just be yourself, no one judges you and no one cares about titles and who you are," she said. Every so often, our car would stop for a minute or two, the trainer would jump out, splash one of the horses with water to cool it off, and away we would go again. It was impressive to see the passion everyone showed for the horses, and equally impressive to see how these Arab women, including Arab princesses, were competing against international riders with commitment and determination.
At the end of the seven-hour event, it was not really about the winning, but about the sense of freedom and team spirit the horsewomen and their supporters shared. One of my friends did make it to the top five, and the other qualified in the endurance race. Sheikha S dug into the huge pile of sandwiches and goodies sent along by her parents, who had opted to sleep in on Friday morning. "Next time," she vowed with a grin, "I will make it to number one."